National parks preserve landscapes with centuries of history. Sometimes beauty is in the remnants of what is no longer there.
Learn the stories behind the changing fortunes at these 10 once-bustling, now-crumbling outposts.
Near Death Valley National Park
Is it surprising that this vast, remote park, which the New York Times once described as “3 million acres of weird,” is home to more ghost towns than actual towns? All that is left of some are weathered foundations or rusted shacks on dusty desert roads. Rhyolite, however, is one of the most accessible and best-preserved gold rush towns in the area, reachable on paved roads about a 45-minute drive from the Furnace Creek Visitor Center. The town was named after the abundant volcanic rock in the region, but the thousands of people who arrived here between 1905 and 1916 came not for the rhyolite, but gold laced in the bedrock. The town was once so large it supported a school, two electric plants, a stock exchange, a hospital and even an opera house. Visitors today can see the remains of some of those buildings, as well as a bank, jail, train depot and other aspects of the thriving community that sprang up seemingly overnight and left with nearly the same startling speed.
Buffalo National River
Visitors to the Buffalo, America’s first national river, can seek out any number of adventures at the park, from rafting to camping to horseback riding. In 1883, however, people flocked to this remote area of the Ozarks for one main reason: zinc. That was the year that prospectors discovered 13,000 pounds of the metal in the region, drawing workers in droves to mine the ore until the mid-1930s. Rush was one of the most prosperous towns in the state and the most stable mining community in the region until prices for zinc dropped at the end of World War I. People continued to live in the town through the 1960s, and it became part of the national park site in 1972. A mile and a half from the river on the east side of the park, visitors can find the skeletal remains of homes, a smelter, a general store and other structures along well-maintained hiking trails with information on the town’s history.
Near Big Bend National Park
At first glance, visitors may not believe Terlingua is a ghost town, what with its cafes, hotels, art galleries … even a drive-through liquor store. The community, once home to the Chisos Mining Company, was abandoned in the 1940s, though several dozen naturalists, artists and other residents have moved in over the last several decades, giving the town its quirky, creative culture and its long-standing, locally famous chili cookoff. Some of the original structures from the mining years remain, weathered and dilapidated around town, while others have been renovated and repurposed. Visitors can get instructions for a self-guided tour at the general store (once the mining company store) to see a hand-dug shaft where people mined for mercury, the crumbling mansion where the mine owner once lived, the remains of a school and a jail, and the Starlight Theatre, an abandoned 1930s movie house converted into a restaurant that now offers live music on its front porch. The tour ends at the Terlingua Cemetery, an overgrown four-acre graveyard where some 400 people from the distant and more recent past are laid to rest in simple mounds of dirt, serving as an eerie reminder to visitors that here, the dead outnumber the living.
Glen Haven, Michigan
Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore
Unlike many towns that rose and fell on the abundance and market price of various minerals, Glen Haven tied its fortune to another natural resource — its trees. In the mid-1800s, settler Charles McCarty built a sawmill, inn and 300-foot dock on the coast of Lake Michigan where steamboat captains could easily stop to pick up wood to fire their engines. Fittingly, he named the original settlement Sleeping Bearville. Over time, it grew from a single dock to a full-fledged village with a school, a blacksmith, an ice-skating rink and a wagon shop, and a transportation company eventually purchased and ran the lumber facilities to service its fleet of ships. By the 1920s, however, highways had improved, and people and cargo were increasingly traveling by road rather than water. The isolated area was hit hard by the Great Depression, and side businesses canning fruit and selling dune buggy rides to tourists could not save the town. The Park Service purchased the abandoned land in the 1970s, and today, visitors to the lakeshore can see the remains of the dock, the original blacksmith shop and the cannery building, which now serves as a boat museum.
Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve
In 1900, two prospectors came across one of the richest copper deposits ever discovered, at a time when the country was experiencing a tremendous demand for the metal. Unfortunately, these giant, mineral-rich cliffs sat on the edge of a glacier in the remote Alaskan wilderness. Crews worked for four straight years — in temperatures as low as 40 degrees F below zero —building a 196-mile railroad across calving glaciers, rivers and steep canyons to connect what would become the town of Kennecott to the coast, where the copper could be brought to market. (“Glaciers stuck out their tongues in defiance along the entire route,” Ned Rozell of the University of Alaska Fairbanks once wrote, “but the pull of financial gain and human ingenuity overcame them.”) As many as 600 workers lived in Kennecott from 1911 until operations closed in 1938, including miners to extract the ore and mill workers to process it. The work was grueling and dangerous, and the isolated location offered people few diversions. The Park Service estimates that the town produced at least $200 million worth of ore in those 27 years. The agency acquired the town in 1998 and launched a long-term project to stabilize and restore the original buildings, though some are too degraded to rehabilitate. Visitors today can see immersive exhibits in nine of the restored buildings (during the warmer months) and learn about the people who once lived here.
Amatol, New Jersey
New Jersey Pinelands National Reserve*
During World War I, the newly developed explosive amatol was mixed with TNT to help stretch limited supplies of the substance. In 1918, after the U.S. entered the war, the government built a munitions plant on 6,000 acres of land in rural New Jersey to create amatol for military-grade weapons. The site included housing for more than 10,000 workers, built 2 miles from the factory in case of explosion. When the war ended later that year, workers left town, and facilities were demolished within the next several years. An odd twist with the town of Amatol, however, is that it was abandoned twice. In 1926, steel magnate Charles Schwab bought part of the land and built a wooden speedway to race stock cars and other vehicles. Schwab kept the racetrack open for just two years, then lost interest, eventually selling the wood for lumber. Visitors to Amatol today can see concrete remnants of the World War I buildings, as well as the ghostly, overgrown oval where stock cars and motorcycles once raced. Note that most of the land is part of the national reserve, but some of the racetrack is on private property; visitors should heed signs to stay on public land when exploring.
St. Thomas, Nevada
Lake Mead National Recreation Area
The curious history of St. Thomas began with a mistaken assumption: Mormon pioneers who first settled there in 1865 believed they were in Utah. When the state of Nevada discovered otherwise and demanded back taxes, nearly all the residents left. A second wave of Mormon pioneers returned several years later, however, and successfully farmed in the river valley until Congress dealt another blow to the community. In the late 1920s, lawmakers approved the construction of the Hoover Dam, and the government subsequently bought up plots of land in the town to build the enormous concrete structure and its reservoir, Lake Mead. In the early 1930s, workers began slowly flooding the area, forcing several communities to evacuate. The last St. Thomas resident, Hugh Lord, famously put his possessions in a boat, set his house on fire and paddled away in 1938. Since the early 2000s, severe droughts and increased water use have brought the lake to historically low levels, and ruins that had been under water for more than 60 years began to resurface. The Park Service now maintains a 2.5-mile loop trail where visitors can see the ruins.
Thurmond, West Virginia
New River Gorge National River
While prospectors rushed to the West in search of gold, miners in the East largely sought a different payoff: coal. Central Appalachia bore (and still bears) the brunt of extensive coal mining, sending generations of workers to dangerous jobs in the region’s rugged landscapes and reaping temporary riches as mines went from boom to bust. Businessman and Confederate Army Captain W. D. Thurmond first settled the town in his name in 1873 after the government gave him 73 acres of land as payment for surveying land in the region. That same year, the C & O Railway was completed, helping to transport coal from the mining towns to the coast, where it was shipped to market. Thurmond became a major stop on the railroad, one of the most successful coal towns in the region, and one of the richest communities in the state. The Great Depression, two destructive fires and reduced demand for coal, however, eventually forced the town into decline, and by the 1950s, it was mostly deserted — by 2010, the population was down to five people. The Park Service restored the town’s train depot — which Amtrak still services — and opened it as a seasonal visitor center in 1995, and the agency is working to stabilize and preserve 20 other original structures. The entire town is listed as a historic district on the National Register of Historic Places.
Near the Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail
Cahawba sits in a lowland valley just outside of Selma at the confluence of two rivers. It served as the state capital from 1820 to 1825, but regular floods and dank, buggy conditions caused legislators to move the capital to Tuscaloosa in 1826, causing the town to lose residents and prestige. Cahawba remained the county seat and recovered on the strength of its cotton production — made possible by the grueling field work of the town’s enslaved population — as well as the promise of a railroad. Almost as soon as the railroad was established, however, the Civil War began, and the Confederate Army tore up the tracks, using the materials to finish a more militarily strategic line. After a severe flood inundated the town in 1865, lawmakers moved the county seat to Selma in 1866, leading to Cahawba’s demise. After the Civil War, Cahawba briefly served as a meeting place for freedmen, who organized political gatherings in the former courthouse, though they soon left the failing town as well. Today, the Alabama Historical Commission maintains the ghost town as an archaeological park. Visitors can see the remnants of old streets and buildings amid towering oaks and Spanish moss. Locals claim plenty of spirits remain as well, and guides offer moonlit ghost tours in October.
Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area
Gold originally drew prospector Grosvener Barry to Bighorn Canyon in 1903, but after three of his mining ventures failed, he switched tactics and turned his working ranch into a dude ranch. Not only was it the first operation of its kind in the area, Barry was arguably the first person to see the tourism value of the region. Barry marketed his ranch as a “sportsman’s paradise” and brought in customers by boat with the promise of hunting, fishing and an authentic a taste of the West. (“Parents can send their children here where there are no bad influences,” he even promised in an ad.) The business grew to support a small town, including ranch hands and a metalsmith. Barry himself even served as postmaster when the town’s post office opened in 1915 until he passed away from cancer in 1920. His wife and stepson continued to operate the ranch for another decade after Barry’s death, eventually returning the operation to a working cattle ranch. Today, the Park Service preserves the remains of the town, including log cabins and bunkhouses, the original post office, corrals, chicken coops, one of the original tourist boats, and other structures, as part of the recreation area.
*Note: The New Jersey Pinelands, also known as the Pine Barrens, is an affiliated area of the National Park System and not actively managed by the Park Service. This UNESCO biosphere preserve is also the long-acknowledged home of the Jersey Devil and an ideal spot for a spooky park vacation.
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About the author
Jennifer Errick Managing Editor of Online Communications
Jennifer writes, edits and moderates online content for NPCA.
- Big Bend National Park
- Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area
- Buffalo National River
- Death Valley National Park
- Lake Mead National Recreation Area
- New River Gorge National River
- Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail
- Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore
- Wrangell St. Elias National Park & Preserve